Inquiry Based Science in Action at McQuaid

March 9, 2011

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In June 2010 I profiled McQuaid Jesuit science teacher Jeanne Kaidy on The STEM Blog.

Kaidy had just been named by President Barack Obama as one of 103 American teachers to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

Kaidy, who has been teaching for thirteen years and is the chair of the science department at McQuaid Jesuit, attributed her recognition for the unique hands-on, inquiry based approach she brings to teaching science.

“I have an entirely inquiry and hands-on approach to teaching,” Kaidy said. “It appeals to kids who need tactile hands-on learning. That’s really what science is.”

Last week Kaidy invited me to see her approach in person when her AP Environmental Studies students presented their Mock Wolf Trial – a culmination of a month of research and preparation.

The excitement in her classroom was palpable when I arrived.

The boys – mostly juniors and seniors – were busy making final touches on their costumes.  Most had changed out of McQuaid’s signature navy blazer, khaki pants, and tie uniform and into clothes that represented the characters they would role-play during the trial.

Among the costumes were: an environmental activist, a Yellowstone National Park official, the governor of New York, a dairy farmer, a deer hunter, a commercial land developer, an ecotourism tour operator and more.

The name of the mock-trial was “Bringing Back the Wolves” and the question posed was “Should gray wolves (Canis lupus) be reintroduced to the northeastern U.S. (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York)?

Kaidy set up her classroom like a courtroom – on one side were the plaintiff’s – the “Defenders of Wildlife” arguing that wolves should be reintroduced to the wild.  On the other side were the defendants – the State Government of Maine – arguing against the reintroduction of the wolves.  In the middle was the witness stand.

As the “trial” got underway it was instantly clear that Kaidy’s students on both sides had prepared.

To facilitate preparation, prior to the hearing each team had to submit finished copies of opening and closing statements, a list of questions for witnesses (with expected answers), a list of questions expected on cross-examination (with answers) and a complete bibliography.

Each student also had to submit a reflection paper and a position paper.

The trial was judged by teachers Kaidy asked to observe.  The teachers scored the teams on opening statement, questioning, closing statements, judges questions, team participation, and costumes.

While I personally favored the costumes and team spirit on the plaintiff’s’ side, as the trial progressed I could see more preparation on the defendants’ side come through.  Having grown up in the Adirondacks and knowing a bit about this issue myself, I thought the plaintiffs would have a slam dunk, but by the trial’s end it was obvious the defendants won.

Kaidy said this is not the first time this has happened. “Sometimes the defendants prepare more because they feel they will be the underdog,” Kaidy said. “We saw that today.”

I spoke to members from both sides of the courtroom after the trial and quickly forgot what side they were on – what stood out was how much they had learned.

“This experience totally changed my opinion about wolves,” said senior George Grobe. “I learned more by having to research the issue myself instead of just hearing about it from Ms. Kaidy.”

Junior Alex Bourdelais agreed.

“I like hands on work,” Bourdelais said. “I learned that with the re-introduction of any species you have to look at the direct consequences and the indirect consequences. Sometimes the indirect are more important like we saw today.”

And, junior John Buono enjoyed the experience so much he is considering a career in environmental law.

Kaidy was pleased with the trial.

“Both sides had a lot of team work and showed me they understood the ecology, economics, and politics of wolves,” Kaidy said. “Those are all parts of what environmental science is.”

As I was leaving the classroom I noticed a bumper sticker on Kaidy’s blackboard that said:

“The truly educated never graduate.”

I believe Kaidy’s approach to teaching will absolutely ensure that even as these young men leave McQuaid they will carry with them an inquiry based approach to learning that does not stop when the assignments do.

Article and photos by Caurie Putnam